In her debut as a coxswain, Katelin Snyder crashed the boat into a dock.
“The hull cracked in two places,” she said. “Our boat man couldn’t fix the boat. They had to send it back to Vespoli [a manufacturer] to get repaired.”
That was high school. Snyder then went to college, to the University of Washington’s storied rowing program, where she set a precedent.
“At school, we did swim lessons in the lake,” she said. “It was like a 52-degree lake. And I’m from Florida. It got cold, and my limbs stopped moving, and I started to sink. So my coach freaked out, and he made all the coxswains wear life jackets in the boat because of that.”
“The oar is a flotation device, but the coxswain doesn’t have an oar,” Snyder jokingly pointed out.
Snyder is now the coxswain of the dynastic U.S. women’s eight, which seeks a third straight Olympic gold medal and 11th straight global title next year.
And her teammates, who traditionally throw the 5-foot-4, 110-pound coxswain into the water after major victories, have the utmost confidence that she won’t sink.
“She’s kind of a natural when she gets into the race,” U.S. coach Tom Terhaar said. “She has a very good feel for who is where, what they’re doing, where her boat is going and how much more they’re capable of. She’s very good at reading a race.”
In Olympic-level rowing, choosing athletes to fill each boat can be complicated. There are rowing machine tests, qualifying regattas and selection camps. Even an athlete’s weight can make a difference in certain events.
In 2010, a different, head-to-head competition took place for the most visible place on the U.S. rowing team — coxswain of the women’s eight.
The coxswain need not lift a finger during a 2,000-meter, six-minute race but is the vocal leader, shouting commands from the stern to the eight rowers powering the boat.
The U.S. earned one rowing gold medal overall at the Beijing 2008 Olympics, in the women’s eight, which had also captured World Championships in 2006, 2007 and 2009.
By 2010, the U.S. women’s eight was already a dynasty.
Mary Whipple, also of the University of Washington, was the coxswain of the U.S. women’s eight every year from 2001 through 2008 as it surged from sixth at the Sydney Games to best in the world over two Olympic cycles.
Whipple, as many Olympians do, decided to take one year off after the 2008 Games. She wanted to earn her master’s in intercollegiate athletic leadership from Washington.
Snyder filled the role in her absence.
Snyder, so unknown that her first name was misspelled in official race results, nonetheless kept the streak in tact by coxing the U.S. to the 2009 World Championship.
In 2010, Whipple returned with her degree and eyes on reclaiming her seat. Snyder was not ready to give it up.
Whipple and Snyder split practice time ahead of the 2010 World Championships to be held in late October and early November. Finally, a decision had to be made.
“It’s the worst,” Whipple said. “The coxswain selection is always the last.”
The women’s eight rowers, past and future teammates of Whipple and Snyder, would vote for one coxswain.
“[Terhaar] had everybody write on a piece of paper, he collected them, and then we went for a run,” Whipple said. “It was the longest 30-minute run ever.”
Whipple and Snyder came to rest on a bench and waited for Terhaar to call each for individual meetings.
Snyder went first, met with Terhaar, and then walked out and passed Whipple.
“Her head was down,” Whipple remembered.
Terhaar then summoned Whipple, who learned moments later that the seat was hers again.
“It wasn’t easy, and [the vote] was close because we knew both of them are excellent,” Terhaar said. “There was an older generation that had known Mary and had that full confidence. Mary was older and a little bit more mature at the time.”
Snyder was devastated.
“My dream was ruined,” said Snyder, seven years younger than Whipple and then 23 years old. “I just remember feeling like, well, if I don’t make this I’m not going to make 2011. I’m not going to make 2012.”
Two months later, Snyder’s younger brother Jake died of cancer at age 21. The rest of the family, including another brother and sister, had fleurs-de-lis tattooed on their right fingers as Jake was an Eagle Scout.
“I think it was pretty bold to have a hand tattoo, but it’s really special,” said Snyder, whose blue tattoo covers most of the area between the knuckles on her right ring finger. “I love that I can see it all the time, and it constantly reminds me of him.”
By spring 2011, Snyder knew that Whipple was on her way to becoming the 2012 Olympic team coxswain, but it was also assumed that London would be Whipple’s final Games.
Snyder pondered her future and decided she didn’t have many marketable skills outside of the sport. Stick with rowing.
So, Snyder took an assistant coaching job at Loyola Marymount to at least fill the gap through the Olympics. She also wanted to mature not only as a coxswain but to also more firmly grasp the sport.
She moved from the U.S. rowing training base at Princeton, N.J., to Los Angeles.
“The best way for me to learn, to be a student of the sport, would be to coach,” she said. “I think it would have been really hard for me to watch the Olympics with excitement if I had been just kind of waiting for it to be over. I think I made the right call. But it was a tough pill to swallow for sure.”
She coached for two years and returned to the U.S. national team in 2013, reclaiming her seat following Whipple’s retirement.
The U.S. women’s eight captured three more World titles in 2013, 2014 and 2015 with Snyder — running the dynasty to 10 years, including a world-record time of 5:54.16 in 2013 — and is a favorite for gold in Rio.
Snyder was joined on the women’s eight at Worlds this year by seven rowers with no Olympic experience plus one London 2012 Olympian, Meghan Musnicki, who can compare Snyder and Whipple.
“They’re very different, but at the same time both very similar in the level of confidence that I have in their ability,” Musnicki said. “I always joke that we could do it without [Snyder], but we definitely couldn’t. I mean, I could dock the boat without her. She has terrible eyesight.”
Snyder is best defined by her voice. She gargles salt water and does neck stretches to stay loose for yelling commands to her boat.
Musnicki joked that Snyder could lead the boat without the customary headset microphone used by coxswains.
“We have two different styles,” Whipple said of Snyder. “Mine is more laid-back and softer. Hers is full-on, let’s get to the line, and I’m going to use my voice and demand it.”
It’s an attitude born of Snyder’s experiences coxing male boats at Winter Park High School in central Florida and at the University of Washington.
Going into high school, Snyder had broken her right leg twice playing soccer and was searching for a new sport. She mentioned rowing to her parents, who said they didn’t think she could handle it. Snyder was sold.
She took an oar for two years with the girls’ team at Winter Park. She wasn’t getting taller or gaining weight, so Snyder became a prime candidate to switch to coxswain as a junior. And the boys’ team needed one. So she signed up.
“I actually really hated it at first,” she said. “They’re high school boys. It’s like the worst time.”
The boys gave her a nickname almost immediately — “Mojo Killer.”
“The very first time I ever coxed a boat, I ran it into the dock,” Snyder confessed. “The boat was called the Mojo, so I was called the Mojo Killer. I cried and cried and cried, the nickname stuck, and eventually I had to own it. I kept going.”
Snyder gained the boys’ respect and was part of a national championship boat in her senior year. She thought that could have been the end of her rowing career.
“I actually didn’t get recruited anywhere for college,” she said. “I didn’t get a single email back. I took one official visit because I really begged the coach to have me, and I had to, like, pay for the visit and everything, and then I didn’t even get into the school!”
Yet Snyder ended up coxing at the University of Washington, one of the most accomplished rowing programs in the country. A Washington men’s eight crew won gold at the Berlin 1936 Olympics, and their story became the 2013 best-selling book, “The Boys in the Boat.”
One of Snyder’s teammates was recruited to Washington and, before enrolling, called Huskies coach Michael Callahan to recommend Snyder.
“She wanted to come and cox the guys’ team,” Callahan said. “We just fell in love with her spirit. Super articulate, tons of energy. She’s probably the Mary Lou Retton of rowing.
“She could command guys. She could grab guys’ respect really easily. She wants to win. She’s a competitor.”
Women coxing men’s boats is not that unusual at the highest college level. Washington’s current men’s rowing roster includes three coxswains, two of which are women.
In 2006, Snyder earned a new nickname on the university’s freshman men’s team — “Kane-Oh.”
“I thought high school boys were bad; this was another level,” Snyder said. “To get them to listen to me, I just had to yell really loud a lot of the time. So they called me the volcano woman, because I got really mad.”
Snyder directed the freshmen to a national title in 2006 and then moved up to the varsity eight, again winning national titles as a sophomore and senior.
“One person said she’s John McEnroe mixed with June Cleaver,” Callahan joked. “She’s a sweet girl, and then when she gets competitive, she’s a force to be reckoned with to be sure.”
Snyder was a freshman in a hotel hallway when she first met Whipple, who recommended Snyder try out for the junior national team.
“I didn’t even know I could try out for the national team,” Snyder said. “[Whipple] really helped me get my foot in the door, and she’s been a really incredible mentor.”
In Rio, Snyder can actually extend one streak and create another. She hopes to lead the U.S. women’s eight to an 11th straight global title. If she does that, she’ll keep the Olympic gold-medal coxswain club in the University of Washington family, joining Whipple and 1984 Olympic coxswain Betsy Beard.
When Snyder was cut from the national team in 2010, she looked up and asked Terhaar if he thought she would ever make the Olympics.
“He said, ‘Yeah, you can definitely make it one day,'” Snyder said. “But I didn’t feel that.”
Whipple, who e-mails with Snyder, recently visited the coxswain and the women’s eight while training in New Jersey. She slapped a new nickname on her successor — badass.
“She now knows the big picture,” Whipple said. “She’s completely grown in to be the natural true leader that I think she was frustrated with before. She’s experienced now, and I think leading collegiate women as a coach, she realized, wow, I need to rise above this and actually be the badass that she is.”
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